In early April, images of refugees being teargassed by Greek police temporarily reawakened the European public to the ongoing ‘refugee crisis’. The images showed the premature end of the ‘Caravan of Hope’, in which hundreds of people departed from the Diavata camp near Thessaloniki, Greece and sought to cross over the border into Macedonia. The caravan was but the latest manifestation of refugees’ collective refusal to give up on the prospect of a better future for themselves and their families.
News reports of the caravan did not, however, focus on the participants’ demand for a freer, better life. Nor did they focus on the dismal conditions underlying this open display of defiance against their confinement within Greece. Instead, much of the news coverage suggested that the cause of the march was a rumour that the border was set to open and focused on “clashes” between “migrants” and police. The BBC, for instance, labelled the caravan as a “fake news border movement”. Such reporting is emblematic of how the political voices of refugees are often rendered mute in media accounts.
That said, to have reports at all these days is rare. There are some exceptions, such as the protests in Diavata or more recently in the overcrowded camp on the island of Samos, but in general the so-called refugee crisis in Greece has all but disappeared from mainstream news reports. The few stories that do appear are depressingly predictable – a litany of suffering, pain, and despair.
The problem with reporting only pain
Highlighting the dire humanitarian conditions is important, as more than 15,000 people languish on the islands alone in what Amnesty International calls “abject misery”. But refugee camps are characterised by more than human suffering. They are social and political spaces shaped by everyone from humanitarian agencies and state authorities to volunteers and refugees. They are places where people stand up for themselves, and thus are continually punctuated by disorder and dissensus. Indeed, refugee camps on Chios and Lesbos have become important sites of resistance against the European Union’s increasingly restrictive border regime.
Mainstream coverage tends to strip away refugees’ agency by reporting on the camps in purely humanitarian terms. As a result, people’s ability to cope, to resist, and to demand their rights despite the humiliating conditions is often rendered invisible.
Resistance is rarely considered newsworthy unless it involves violence.
There is no shortage of such stories when one goes looking for them. In March, for example, dozens of refugees, international volunteers, and local activists on Lesbos rallied to denounce the infamous EU-Turkey deal that is responsible for trapping thousands on the islands.
A few days before, the Afghan community led a peaceful protest inside VIAL, the EU ‘hotspot’ on Chios. With placards bearing the words “we need justice” and pictures of the aftermath of bombings in their home country, the group of men, women, and children stood up against perceived discrimination by camp authorities and lengthy asylum procedures.
Such moments of everyday resistance, when refugees assert their collective political voice, are rarely considered newsworthy unless they involve violence. “In the eight months that I’ve been here, I haven’t seen a single journalist come to our camp and speak to us,” said Abdul, a Yemeni refugee living in VIAL. “That’s a problem. How can the message be delivered to the general public?”
But getting any message out of these highly securitised spaces to a wider audience is hard. This applies also to stories of abuse. Mobile phones and social media allow refugees to document their degrading treatment in ‘hotspots’ and other spaces where journalists and other outsiders have limited access. However, such courageous attempts to expose rights violations rarely make it past a confined digital microcosm of friends, volunteers, and others with a pre-existing connection to the ‘crisis’.
This suits the camp authorities, who also use threats and generalised fear to limit public scrutiny of what goes on inside the camps. “VIAL is like a prison,” said Leila. Originally from Afghanistan, she explained how many people in the camp didn’t dare to speak up for fear of negatively impacting their asylum claims. Idrees, who spent four months living in Moria camp on Lesbos, confirmed this. “One of my friends was threatened that if he went to some other journalist one more time he will be the one responsible for all the consequences he will face,” he said.
“We are not dogs barking in front of you.”
Legal Centre Lesvos has documented the ways in which refugees taking part in peaceful protests “against the restriction of movement to the Greek Islands and the inhumane conditions in Moria camp” are often met with police violence and arrests. Some have been put on trial. This tactic of criminalising migrants who exercise their freedom of speech has had its desired effect for the Greek state. “Moria is sleeping,” one refugee activist from Bangladesh said, in reference to a decline in refugee-led protest activity in recent months.
Grassroots volunteers must also carefully balance attempts to speak publicly with their work of providing help and relief to refugees. Some have been warned by authorities not to publish photos and videos on their social media documenting the dire conditions in the camp. Others have had their access to camps curtailed for being too vocal.
Where do we go from here?
There are two lessons to be learned here. First, while it’s crucial that the media continue to report on the dire conditions of camps in Greece, journalists should spend more time speaking with refugees themselves. They are not only invaluable sources of information about what is happening inside camps but how they choose to describe their situation is important for refugees to be recognised as human.
Second, there are many stories to be told beyond tales of suffering alone. Camps are places where many people who have lost their homes and their rights as citizens are continually fighting for justice and trying to tell it to the world. But their voices are often reduced to mere cries and moans. Idrees recalled one time where journalists working for a major international news agency were more interested in capturing footage of his wife crying than engaging with their intimate knowledge of camp life and accounts of the routine rights violations inside Moria. “It makes you disheartened”, he said. “We are not dogs barking in front of you.”
Media visibility is no guarantee that refugees’ acts of defiance will result in meaningful change to the everyday brutalities of camp life. Conversely, it may even lead to further punitive measures. But there remains a responsibility for the media to bring refugees’ testimonies to wider audiences. Unless journalists take refugees’ political voices seriously, they will continue to feed the notion of what anthropologist Liisa Malkki calls the “speechless” refugee – a victim to be pitied, who needs to be spoken on behalf of rather than spoken with.
Names have been changed to better protect the camp residents mentioned in this article.